So, today David Fincher turns 52. We talk a lot about Fincher on this blog. We love him. Of all the modern filmmakers today, he’s probably my favorite. He has crafted such a signature style, but he’s one of the most effective directors when it comes to allowing his material room to breathe. His style never overtakes the film, but he uses it as a compliment, as a way to embellish. I’ll be the first to admit that he’s had some rocky moments. The Game is an utter mess, and Alien3, while not the disaster so many think it was (or have been told to think it was) just didn’t hit all of the right marks, and Panic Room feels like an admirable attempt at blending his two most prolific films (Fight Club and Se7en) but a sadly uneven attempt at that. Still, amidst these missteps, Fincher has maintained his reputation as one of cinemas greatest talents thanks to his ability to excite all of our senses within a single frame.
David Fincher is always the brightest star of all of his films.
So, this brings me to my top ten for today. I wanted to celebrate his career with a birthday top ten, but I didn’t want to just rank his films. I’ve kind of done that before. I considered ranking my ten favorite performances in Fincher films, and yet some of those are so obvious (some not) and so that got me thinking…Fincher is just SOOOOO good with his actors, even actors we would never think could pull off the roles they’ve been assigned. He just knows how to make an actor look good. Maybe it’s the hundreds of takes he takes that gives him the one good take he needs, but I chose to feel that there is something that emotes from his vast talent that just overtakes the actors and pushes them far above what they’ve been capable of before.
So, I want to talk about ten often overlooked performances in Fincher films. This is an unranked list, because rating them isn’t really the point. I just want to raise awareness. Watch these films again. Take your eyes of Brad Pitt and look at the actors who are sharing the screen with him! Don’t focus on the Oscar nominee or the actor who nearly got that Oscar nomination (sorry Garfield, you would DEFINITELY be on my Top Ten performances in a Fincher film, but you are not here) but look deeper, to the performances that didn’t get the critical attention or don’t have the rabid fan base.
And, here we go!
We can pretty much say “everyone in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that is not Rooney Mara” but specifically these three because I’m still really shocked they never received any awards attention. I was so sure on the outset of the year that Daniel Craig was going to be an Oscar nominee for this, and his lack of any attention (not even from BAFTA) kind of baffled me. Sure, it was a strong year in the category (at least according to Oscar), but he wasn’t even in the running? His strong yet vulnerable performance was outstanding and a perfect foil to Mara’s strong, guarded, aggressive performance. We never once saw Bond, which was also a really great sign of a great actor.
As far as the Supporting players were concerned, Plummer was too busy winning the Oscar for his performance in Beginners, but couldn’t he have at least been cited for this one a little more? His paternal longing was perfectly shaded by the mystery surrounding his family. Maybe Fincher is to thank for all that, but then again, Plummer’s line readings were brilliantly cloaked in ambiguity. You wanted to trust him, but you weren’t sure you should…and I’d read the novel (and seen the Swedish film), so I knew what to think!
And then you have Skarsgard. The lack of awards love for this performance saddens me, because this is right up Oscar’s wheelhouse. They love villains, and no one does villain quite like Fincher. He has this way about etching out evil in a way that feels so honest, so lived in. He did it with Spacey in Se7en and he did it here with Skarsgard. Everything leading up to the reveal is just as important as the actual reveal itself, but really, it is all about that reveal and the savagery and snarky arrogance that accompanies it, and Skarsgard sells it 100%. His stare, his smirk, his choice of music; Skarsgard is remarkably solid and pretty much Satan incarnate, but without the overbearing obviousness.
It’s not entirely surprising to me that of the entire cast of The Social Network, Song is the one that no one mentions. The film made waves for sporting Timberlake in a prominent role, finally finding an avenue for Eisenberg’s snark, making instant stars of Garfield and Mara and igniting Armie Hammer’s non-career; but the first thing I remember thinking when I saw the cast list for The Social Network was, “isn’t that the chick from The Disney Channel?”. I walked in very curious of what Fincher was going to do with her, and I walked out convinced that no one could have utilized her better. Sure, she’s a glorified groupie, but she nails every one of her key scenes, and while Mara had that killer opening scene and that lingering final moment (that she isn’t even in), Song has probably the most iconic image from the whole film, and the way she sheds her Disney image without shedding her top is rather remarkable. She sinks right into the role, being both supporting and leaching and balances out the two without the need of backstory. She’s only there for her key moments, but she sells them beautifully.
Cate Blanchett delivers, in my eyes, the best performance in the The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the one performance that no one seemed to talk about outside of the internet forums was Tilda Swinton. With just a few short scenes (a singular segment in the film that lasts all of maybe ten minutes), Swinton delivers an astonishing portrait of longing, desperation and loneliness that completely nails the film’s core themes in a much sharper and more effective way than any other moment in the entire film. She doesn’t have a lot to say, but her presence says so much, and the fact that she brings a life to Pitt’s otherwise monotone performance says a lot for the way she works her scenes. There is a quiet spark, something that lies behind the eyes, but it is something unforgettable.
Zodiac is, almost more so than any of Fincher’s other films, a film that relies almost completely on Fincher’s direction. Yes, there are performances to discuss and dissect, but when one walks away from Zodiac we think first and foremost of Fincher himself. His presence is felt on every frame. That being said, when you think of the cast you think of Gyllenhaal trying to tread water amidst that triple threat of Downey Jr., Ruffalo and Edwards. But, in that sea of big names are two character actors elevating scenes left and right.
First, let’s talk Chloe Sevigny. She has a rather thankless role, but she manages to peer out from behind those glasses with a supportive sense of wonderment and sheer anxiety, delivering a performance that floats in the background, but never fully disappears. She knows her place, but she doesn’t allow that place to define her. Sevigny is one of those actresses I’m always happy to see pop up in a film, but I don’t think she gets the respect she deserves, despite being an Oscar nominee. She is consistently effective, always bringing such raw naturalism to the table, and this is no exception.
But really, of anyone in the cast, even the big stars, no one delivers the goods like John Carroll Lynch, who is really nothing more than a cameo here since he has one big scene and then nothing, but MY GOD is he brilliant. Chilling, mysterious, arrogant, entitled, mockingly concerned, completely sure of himself and his innocence or faux innocence and a perfect enigma. You can’t help but KNOW that he did it without KNOWING that he did it, and that makes the unfolding of the entire film all the more impressive.
You can’t shake him.
No, Panic Room is not Fincher’s finest work, but this may be the finest use of Whitaker’s physical attributes ever put to film. I’ll explain. One of the biggest issues I’ve always had with getting Whitaker as an actor is that his physical girth and his vocal fragility never really mesh well. He’s like the definition of ‘teddy-bear’ and yet he never really gets the right roles to capitalize on this. He just comes off awkward to me. Here though, Fincher gave him the perfect role to give a full bodied performance, and while he builds it slowly throughout, it’s the final act that gives him the arc needed to sell his character and performance. He’s got the presence to sell the harshness of his ‘acts’ and yet, his facial gestures and vocal emoting lay the groundwork for his character’s eventual change of heart.
This may seem like cheating, since he’s the film’s star, but when people talk about Fight Club (even though they’re not supposed to) they talk about Brad Pitt’s fiery star turn and the brilliant Supporting work from Helena Bonham Carter, but what they should be talking about is how Edward Norton walks away with the whole show! Norton delivers such a fearless performance here, one that completely takes the audience by surprise. He comes off so unsure, so introverted, and yet as the film progresses he starts to flourish and his progressive performance is astonishing to watch. Pitt and Carter are great, but they have characters that don’t change. They are already cemented in their immediate direction. Norton has to build a complete character, with personality shifts and complete and very noticeable arc, and he does so flawlessly.
Poor Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s become a punching bag of a celebrity and has pretty much moved so far away from the spotlight that modern cinephiles have begun to view her as an Oscar theif and an obnoxiously self-absorbed Desperate Housewife. What people fail to remember is that, in the 90’s, she was a pure, rising talent. While her Oscar win is often regarded as a mistake, mostly because Cate Blanchett has become a beacon in the acting community, her string of performances starting in the mid-90’s and moving forward till the early aughts was rather astonishing to behold. In Se7en, she has little to do, and yet what she does with a few small scenes is really something special. The way she basically colors in her entire marriage, her devotion to her husband, support, concern, pressures, love; everything feels so richly underscored without being oversold, and this is all in a singular scene. Yes, Spacey steals the film and Pitt has such a devastatingly real third act and Freeman anchors the film, but for me Paltrow delivers something truly unforgettable and handles a rather thankless part with such class and depth of understanding.
So there you have it. Obviously, all lists are subjective, but I hope this list was able to shed some light on some performances you may not have given much attention to in the past, or maybe made you want to rewatch these films with different intent.
For more awesome Fincher coverage this month, shoot on over to Sati’s incredible blog, Cinematic Corner, to see all the Fincher related posts she’s got planned over the next two months, in anticipation of Gone Girl. And while we’re on that subject, we can all contemplate what overlooked gem of a performance we’ll be able to add to this list once that film is released!